I knew very little about the October Revolution or the beginnings of the Soviet Union when I set out to read Ten Days That Shook the World. Indeed, by the time I was born, the Soviet Union was but a piece of history. I did not grow up under the “Red Menace”, or nor did I perceive that area of the world to be in any way evil. So, by reading this book, I was shocked about how little I actually knew about the beginnings of the conflict. I’d heard the names: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin etc. but I never really knew who they were or what they did. In that respect, Ten Days That Shook the World is an incredibly useful work.
To give you some background information, Russia had been governed by a Tsar (a king) for close to five centuries. In early 1917, after immense public opposition to Russia’s role in World War One, the Tsar abdicated and a provisional government was formed. It continued to expand troops for the war effort. While the government was popular for a while, an underground movement led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky called the Bolsheviks was gaining ground. They set out to undermine the government, take over control of the country and establish a communist state. The provisional Government, led by a man named Kerensky, set out to quash all Bolshevik’s. The two groups finally came to a head in late October of 1917.
The capital of Petrograd (today known as St. Petersburg) became the stage of the aggressions, vividly recounted first hand by John Reed in this novel. The city’s guards defected to the Bolsheviks and took over the city, while the provisional government fled. This sparked the beginning of a civil war that would last until 1922, though this novel only extends to late 1917. The provisional government attempted to defeat the Bolshevik’s in a battle, but lost and fled. Then, the Bolshevik’s led by Lenin, formed a dictatorship of sorts and took over the country. This is where the novel ends.
While I may have not known much about the conflict, reading about it was electrifying. Despite about a hundred pages of explanation behind the revolution, as soon as the novel begins it never stops. John Reed, the author, was an American journalist stationed in Petrograd. Although he identified with the Bolshevik’s, I found the novel to be surprisingly apolitical. The events that the book covers take place over a span of about two months, but as Reed aptly put it in the title, they “shook the world”.
Reed’s writing style reminds me of a newspaper article stretched out to book format. This suits the book, as it grounds the novel firmly in reality. I also noticed that often Reed would write half sentences, ending each with three dots before continuing with a new idea. This jumble of ideas can feel like a mess, but even more it feels like Reed got so excited that he had to rush to put everything down on paper before he forgot it. The novel reads and is written like a person telling a story, and getting so caught up in it you can’t help but share their excitement.
Reed returned to New York and all his notes were taken by the government. When they were returned he reportedly wrote nonstop for a couple weeks before he finished the novel. Then he returned to Russia where he died in 1920. This is all that is left of his career, and after pouring his heart and soul into its creation, he would probably be happy to know that it still feels as relevant and exciting as it did 100 years ago.
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